Back when the ‘Old Kanye’ was the only Kanye West and long before streaming services enabled us to construct our own playlists, hip-hop lovers were basically forced to listen to albums from start to finish. During this time – and particularly in the bygone era of cassette tapes – this meant that some of your favorite rap songs might not have been songs at all.
From the early ’90s right up until the end of the 2000s, the inclusion of album skits became the norm in hip-hop. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for the biggest rap albums to span 20 tracks or more thanks to numerous skits, interludes, and segues that tried and (sometimes) succeeded to make us laugh.
That all changed though as the importance of sequencing albums in a specific order began to fade in favor of infinite streaming, and over the years, these kind of comedic skits gradually evolved into a distracting nuisance. After all, such anachronistic breaks don’t lend themselves well to the world of YouTube and Spotify, and when a skit does crop up these days, even the most playful interlude can instantly kill the mood of a playlist, demanding an instant skip.
It’s no wonder then that old-school album skits have almost died out, but that doesn’t mean we should count them out completely. While they’re no longer as prevalent as they once were, the very best of them can still drastically change the way we interpret the music, and how they achieve this has also changed drastically over the past 30 years too.
When Skits Ruled the World
While they weren’t the first to dabble in comedy through music, it’s safe to say that De La Soul helped popularize the album skit like no other, and a huge part of that was down to their producer, Prince Paul. Speaking about his work on their debut record in 1988, Paul told Red Bull Music Academy that the “problem with a lot of hip-hop albums back then was that most MCs didn’t know who they were.” By spoofing game shows and children’s music, these skits helped give listeners “an instant sense of identity,” lending 3 Feet High and Rising a vital sense of structure.
While Prince Paul “never thought [skits] would become a rap album staple,” the industry as a whole soon ran with the concept in ways that few could have ever predicted. From Ice Cube’s subversion of gangsta stereotypes to the cinematic soundscapes crafted on every Wu-Tang Clan release, skits strengthened the concept behind these classic records, either lightening the mood when necessary or going in even harder on the artist’s message.
It might seem strange now, but on the most popular rap records released during this era, skits were sometimes deemed almost as important as the songs themselves. After all, it’s impossible to recall Biggie’s Ready to Die album without also thinking of Lil Kim’s carnal interludes – and who can forget first hearing Dre play the $20 Sack Pyramid on The Chronic?
Through the use of parody, impersonation, and humor, these interludes helped contextualize the often extreme themes explored in each album while also rewarding the obsessive listener with ‘Easter eggs’ and endless reams of quotable dialogue. Before social media provided us with a direct line of contact to our favorite stars, the best skits gave die-hard fans the chance to find common ground with them beyond the radio, helping them bond together through joint laughter and shared tastes in pop culture. Unfortunately, not all skits were this effective.
When Skits Grew Tiresome
On their 1996 track “Stakes Is High,” De La Soul openly condemned hip-hop’s fixation on drugs and “shakin’ asses,” arguing that these stereotypes were bringing the industry down in a steady decline. Regrettably, such tropes were popularized in part by the very skits that they helped pioneer in the first place just a few years earlier. While some artists continued to caricature themselves effectively in the spaces between their songs, others actively crammed as many pimps and guns into each skit as possible without any hint of irony or subversion.
For every hilarious clip recorded by artists like Big Pun and Redman, there were dozens more that practically screamed to be skipped. The less said about the Fugees’ Chinese Restaurant skit on their sophomore album, the better. Tone deaf interludes like that one began to grossly outnumber the ones that actually worked, and by the early 2000s, their creative appeal had been diluted beyond recognition.
Even before the streaming era heralded the end of comedy skits as we know them, artists began to phase them out anyway. There’s only so many times you can listen to fake radio stations and answer machine messages before skit fatigue sets in. The poor scripting that characterized most of these album breaks certainly didn’t help either, and by the late 2000s, even skit-happy artists like Eminem and Kanye West avoided using them almost entirely.
No matter what fond memories you might have of Broke Phi Broke on Kanye’s Late Registration, it’s safe to say that later efforts like Yeezus benefitted from a far more focused track listing. However, that doesn’t mean skits deserve to be phased out completely.
When Skits Evolved
In theory, skits should act as transitions that play an integral role in the story each artist is trying to tell. Although this message was lost on most somewhere down the line, there are still a handful of artists working today who recognize that these interludes should draw listeners in instead of pushing them away, and the genre as a whole is better off for it.
Tyler, the Creator realized early on in his career that skits could serve as a powerful framing device, and by pushing the character of Dr. T.C. to the forefront of these, he was able to channel and eventually expunge some of his personal demons. In contrast, Vince Staples plays around with radio-style skits to explore wider issues of consumption which affect how African-American listeners interact with his work.
It’s not just rappers who can tell the power of a carefully constructed skit either. The vignettes scattered throughout Blonde inform Frank Ocean’s music in deeply personal ways that demand to be heard more than once, and Solange regularly uses interludes to create a continuous production style that flows from beginning to end. By including a variety of powerful black female voices in her latest skits, When I Get Home directly honors Solange’s heritage and contextualizes her art with sincerity and nuance.
Among the few artists who are successfully reworking skits in the modern streaming era, special mention must also go to Kendrick Lamar. Always a gifted storyteller, Kendrick elevated his craft on good kid, m.A.A.d city through the use of voicemail messages that pulled listeners directly into the world of Compton. With cinematic precision, the missed calls from his parents help weave a narrative that embodied the very best of ’90s skits while also connecting his work to a long-standing tradition of African-American oral storytelling.
Skits Are Here To Stay
Skits have always worked as a creative extension of a rapper’s personality. The problem before was that most performers lacked the comedic chops to manage what the likes of Dre and De La Soul pulled off so effortlessly in the early ’90s. Lucky for us that newer artists have chosen to reinvent this trope by veering away from outright laughs while continuing to draw inspiration from the very best skits recorded by their heroes.
Comedy still has a place in hip-hop, but it’s refreshing to see thematically relevant content take precedence. While most rappers once felt obliged to incorporate skits into their material, regardless of whether they wanted to or not, artists are no longer driven by a financial need to do so. This means that only those who truly want to still play around with this format do so, thereby reducing the number of mediocre skits that once plagued the industry.
Because of this, skits are far less common than they used to be, but the very best of them still hold the power to transform a collection of songs into something infinitely more special. Even in the modern age of streaming, carefully thought out interludes can still provide listeners with a unique gateway into an artist’s mind that can’t be uncovered through a mere scroll of their Instagram feed. In fact, it can be argued that traditional album skits are more important than ever precisely because of this, even if they’re no longer easily recognized as such.
In 2019, we’re no longer forced to sit through albums and all of their skits from start to finish, but when artists like Kendrick Lamar continue to reinvent the very building blocks of the genre with such skill and artistry, why would you choose not to?